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Note: This tale, entitled "The Taming of the Shrew", looks like a story for children but it is actually a fictitious story for adults, mirroring an actual political event that is happening somewhere in the world today.
I am going to post the whole stories in parts. Each part will take several days or even a week to post. Please be patient and don't take it as a joke. To cut a long story short, let's go straight to the story now:
Once upon a time there lived a weird old man who liked to spend his time telling fairy tales to the children in his village. He had been living in the village for a long time but nobody knew his real name. The children in the village called him "Agong", a Chinese term of respect for an old man or a grandfather. On this day as usual, he sat on a rock under a tree outside his house with a group of children gathering around him eager to listen to his stories.
"In a distant country lived an emperor with many daughters," began the old man. "On the 17th birthday of his second youngest daughter, the emperor announced that he would choose three suitors for the hand of the princess on her 20th birthday. On that day, the three suitors would be waiting to catch a ball made of silk ribbon thrown down at them by the princess from her palace window. The lucky suitor who managed to catch the silk ball was regarded as having obtained the "mandate" or "legitimacy" from the people to be the son-in-law of the emperor.
As the second youngest princess was the most beautiful girl in the kingdom, she attracted a lot of attention and admiration from her humble subjects whenever she rode in her gilded coach through the capital's royal route. Many men had been dreaming all this while to be her future husband one day. Even the street beggars, 13-year-old boys and 70-year-old men dreamed of marrying the princess. They were upset and disappointed at the emperor's announcement. Hence it was not surprising that the streets of the capital were filled with men, young and old, rich and poor, protesting against the emperor's decision. The only people who were caught off guard by the sheer size of the protest were the emperor and his ministers."
"If I was there, I would also take part in the protest because I want to marry a beautiful princess," a 12-year-old boy interrupted Agong. All the other children broke into laughter at the cheeky remark.
Agong glanced at him with a smile, "Small boy, study hard before dreaming of marriage." All the children laughed again.
Agong continued his story: "There is an old African saying, 'When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.' There is an equivalent saying in Chinese, 'When the city gates are on fire, it is the fish in the moat that suffer.' Hence, not everybody supported the protest. There was almost anarchy in the streets. The capital was almost paralyzed by the protest. Business and all other activities in the city almost came to a standstill. Many shops, inns, banks, markets, pawn shops and other places of business were closed during the street protest.
Businessmen, especially the small shop owners, were the first to feel the pinch. Most workers could not go to work. Many housewives were swearing and cursing as they could not go to the markets to buy food for their families. Babies were crying because their mothers could not buy milk from the groceries. There were a lot of anger and resentment in the business community against the protesters because many companies could go bankrupt if the protest dragged on for a long time. Sedan chair carriers were angry at the protesters because they could not transport their passengers down the congested, winding passageways to their destinations. Even the beggars were grumbling as all the people were busy protesting without taking a look at their empty bowls.
At night, the crowd grew in number as more people from the surrounding countryside joined in the protest after returning from work. The protest became some sort of street party and celebration at night as the crowd sang and danced with candles in their hands. The sea of people stretched all the way from one end of the city to the other end. As the echoes of 'freedom to choose' reverberated throughout the capital, the emperor and his ministers had to cover their ears with their pillows while sleeping.
There was an incident in which a horse carriage almost ploughed into some protesters who were sleeping in their tents on a street in the wee hours of the morning. Fortunately, nobody was injured. The driver was arrested by the police. He explained to the police that he was furious at the protesters for blocking the roads as he was rushing his wife in labour to the hospital."
At this point, Agong stopped and told the children, "Sorry, I have to rush to the toilet. Please wait here for a short while for the rest of the story."
I have forgotten to inform the readers that the weird old man had a very weak stomach. Hence he often stopped halfway in the story to rush to the toilet. To him, "wait here for a short while" meant waiting for a long time, because he usually spent many hours in the toilet!
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"You have been away for one whole day! We went home immediately after you left for your toilet, knowing full well that you would spend a long time there. After having a good night sleep, we have just arrived here this morning, about the same time as yesterday, waiting for you to finish the story," said the cheeky 12-year-old boy.
"I had fallen asleep while doing my 'big business' and thinking how to finish my story," said Agong. The children broke into laughter again.
Agong continued, "Can anyone think of how best to end the story?"
One girl shouted: "Finally, the emperor acceded to the popular demand to let the princess freely choose whoever she loved!"
An older girl suggested: "A handsome prince came riding on a white horse from a distant land. He fought all his way into the palace, killed all the wicked people and rode with the beautiful princess to a remote paradise island where they lived happily ever after."
"My version is the best," said the cheeky 12-year-old boy. "The handsome prince on the white horse rode all the way into the palace. At a wave of a magic wand that was given to him by a powerful magician, all the soldiers and other people in the palace fell into a deep slumber. The prince found the princess sleeping on her bed. He bent over to give her a kiss, and she woke up. When the emperor and all the other people in the palace finally woke up, the prince had ridden with the princess to his castle in a distant land where they lived happily ever after."
Agong laughed loudly, "Small boy, you have nothing in your mind except kissing and marrying a beautiful princess. You should spend your precious time studying your school work!" All the children laughed loudly.
At this point, they saw a lean figure approaching them slowly in the distance. It was Agong's friend. He was younger than Agong. The children used to call him "Uncle" but the adults in the village called him "Philosopher" because he was a learned scholar. Like Hong Xiuquan of the Taiping Rebellion, he had failed the imperial examinations five times. Again, like Hong Xiuquan, he became a tutor to the children in his village and continued to study privately. Fortunately, unlike Hong Xiuquan, he was sane enough not to claim that he had received visions in which he learned that he was the younger brother of Jesus.
With regard to Agong, nobody in the village knew his background, but he was definitely a learned scholar like Uncle. It is not surprising to find that the tiny remote village was a place of "Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon". The phrase "Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon" derives from a Chinese idiom that describes an unlikely location where talented people could be found. Throughout the history of Chinese dynasties, frustrated scholars used to live a quiet, simple life in the remote countryside or mountainous regions.
On arrival, Uncle said, "The children had told me your fairy tale yesterday. I am eager to know its ending."
"I am glad to learn that my best friend is eager to hear the story," said Agong. "Here is the rest of the story. At first, the protesters declared that they would never resort to force to achieve their goals. They only demanded the princess to be given the freedom to choose anyone she loved as her husband. Later, however, they upped the ante by demanding the prime minister to resign for not persuading the emperor to heed their righteous demand.
All this while, the emperor seemed quite happy to prolong his standoff with the protesters. However, like all protests in all countries, the longer the protest drags on, the more likely for it to be hijacked by some radical elements with ulterior motives. As the protest dragged on to the 6th day, the impatient protesters upped the ante by giving the prime minister the ultimatum to resign within 24 hours; otherwise they would escalate the protest by occupying his residence.
Taking an analogy, a rope will definitely break at some point when it is pulled in opposite directions by two horses. With both sides refusing to give way and talk to each other, it was just a matter of time for the unrest to spiral out of control. After the deadline set by the protesters had passed, the prime minister still refused to step down. As the standoff continued, the protesters became more impatient. Led by a group of radical elements, they began storming the prime minister's residence. This act was regarded by the emperor as a rebellion and was the last straw that broke the camel's back. Troops were sent out to crush the protest, resulting in heavy casualties on the protesters."
On hearing the tragic ending of the fairy tale, all the children, especially the girls, began weeping loudly: "Agong, you are very naughty. You are as nasty as the emperor. Why don't you end the story in the usual way of 'living happily ever after'?" All of them ran home, crying loudly.
All this while, Uncle listened quietly without showing any expression on his face. After all the children had left, he laughed loudly.
Agong asked: "Why are you laughing while the children are crying all the way home?"
Uncle replied, "When two stubborn bulls charge at each other in a china shop, what else can I do but to step aside and laugh at their folly? By the way, why not simply humour the children by giving your fairy tale a happy ending?"
Agong replied, "The ending of this story is the most difficult I have ever encountered in my storytelling. I was struggling so hard in my mind how to end the fairy tale that I fell asleep halfway during my 'big business' in the toilet.
Both of us are old enough to have experienced the realities and vicissitudes of life. At first I thought of giving my fairy tale a happy ending, but I changed my mind on second thought because I realized that such a prolonged standoff often results in tragedy. My friend, both of us had been to the big cities in our youth. There we came across foreigners and their literature. In the process of struggling to decide the ending for my fairy tale, I suddenly remembered two memorable lines in Shakespeare's King Lear, likening the gods to immature, uncaring, unjust children, and man to insignificant flies, creatures subject to sportful cruelty:
'As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport.'
As often in real life, we find no fairies but the Unseen Hand of Destiny that manipulates us to become victims of folly, greed, selfishness, obstinacy and naivety. We always forget the lessons of history and pay staggering cost in repeating mistakes after mistakes.
Neither side can be a winner in a political unrest. The real losers will be the people and the country. A prolonged political unrest could set the country back a few decades.
Similarly, staging a revolution is not as simple as changing one's clothes or mowing the weeds in one's garden and wait for a better tomorrow. A revolution, together with prolonged civil wars, could cost millions of lives, split the country and set it back a few centuries with possible loss of territories.
Like the gods killing man for their sport, a writer or a storyteller can also do likewise with the characters in his story. However, I give my fairy tale a tragic ending not for the fun of it but for the reality of life. When both conflicting parties refuse to give way to each other, speeding towards each other on a collision course. In such circumstances, tragedy is unavoidable."
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Thanks for your comment. The story mirrors an actual event that is taking place somewhere in the world today. Can you guess the region I am referring to?
I shall post the third part of the story next week. Look forward to getting more comments from our shy reader.
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As usual in the morning, the children gathered around Agong to listen to his stories. The eyes of some of the children were still red from their crying yesterday after hearing the tragic end of the protesters who stormed the prime minister's residence in the story. Sitting quietly beside them was Uncle or "Philosopher" as he was called by the adult villagers. Uncle was seldom present at the storytelling sessions, but he seemed to get increasingly interested in Agong's stories.
Looking around to ensure all the children were present, Agong began his story: "What I told you yesterday were not the end of the story. Despite the crackdown on the group of radical protesters who stormed the prime minister's residence, the rest of the protesters still refused to disperse. Crowds of defiant demonstrators still controlled a number of major thoroughfares and intersections in the congested city.
In order to know what all the fuss was about, we have to go back 17 years into the past when the kingdom was defeated by an invading army. In addition to large cash payments, the emperor was forced to give his second youngest daughter, who was only a few months old at that time, to the king of the invading army as part of war reparations. The foreign king also demanded the emperor for several ministers to stay with the baby princess in his country. To get rid of his political opponents, the emperor picked several ministers, who were most vocal in opposing his policies, to stay with his daughter in the foreign land. Why the foreign king demanded several ministers from the emperor’s court to stay in his land is anybody’s guess.
When the princess was five years old, the foreign king betrothed her to his youngest son of the same age. The marriage ceremony was supposed to be held at the age of thirteen. The restless prince loved to ‘see the world from above’ by climbing up to high places such as trees and walls. At about the age of ten, he climbed up a ladder and sat on a wall. Unfortunately, he had a great fall like Humpty Dumpty, and all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put him together again.
When the princess was twelve years old, the foreign king suffered a series of military setbacks in his wars with other countries. To seek the economic cooperation of the emperor, he decided to return the princess to the emperor on the condition that she must have more than one suitor to choose for her marriage and a period of fifty years to adjust to the new way of life in her ancestral land. Hitherto, every princess was allowed to throw a silk ball from her window at only one suitor who had been prescreened by the emperor. As the sun rose above the horizon, the ministers, who left with the baby princess for the foreign land early in the morning twelve years ago, now embarked on a journey with the child princess in a procession of six horse-drawn carriages eastward back to their ancestral land.
Despite the progress and prosperity in recent years, the kingdom was still bogged down by the historical baggage of the past decade, and the emperor was plagued by the phobia and nightmare of foreign bogeymen creeping out from the historical baggage under his bed at night. After their return, the emperor was more suspicious of the ministers and retired them as commoners to the countryside. The emperor suspected they were behind the massive street protests as they had openly wished their sons could marry the princess. He also wondered why they kept silent when the princess was betrothed to the foreign prince at the age of five.
As the protests dragged on, more people were getting frustrated with the disruption to their lives and incomes. Pawn shops, inns, medical stores, tea houses, restaurants, clothes stores and markets in the city remained closed. Scuffles broke out between demonstrators and anti-protest groups who tried to remove the barricades set up by the former in the streets.
One angry shopkeeper said, 'The majority of the people do prefer more rights, of course. What they are opposed to is the massive protests that are currently taking the city hostage and disrupting their lives.' Another businessman said, 'I used to support the protesters, but they need to do everything legally. I can’t support them anymore. To pursue their dreams, they are robbing people of their livelihoods. You may not like your home, but you can’t destroy it.' An old carriage driver grumbled, 'The whole city is descending into chaos because of these people. What if they kill my horses and break my carriage? What if they drag me off and beat me? I don’t dare to show my anger at these hooligans on the streets.'
When the anti-protest groups demanded the demonstrators to end their protests, the latter responded by shouting 'mind your own business' and singing 'happy birthday', a tactic used to drown out opposition voices. 'It means nothing to us, we don’t care what they yell at us,' said a young protester. 'We can’t deny that we will cause some inconvenience for this period of time, but if we don’t stand up to speak now then we won’t get another chance to speak out again.'
A member of the public pointed out that the main problem was that everybody suddenly discovered their right to break the law. According to him, everybody would ask, 'When all other people can break the law, why can't I?' Another anxious parent expressed her worry that naive youngsters would be brainwashed by political opportunists and acted without thinking in the future.
After one year, the emperor told his eldest son, 'My patience is waning thin. Before reaching the breaking point, I want you to go on my behalf tomorrow to seek the advice of a hermit monk who lives in a cave on a nearby mountain.' The prince set off on a three-day journey with two bodyguards to the mountain next day, but when he reached the mountain cave, he found that the cave entrance was blocked a huge slab of stone inscribed with the words meaning 'not at home' in Chinese. The prince and his bodyguards took another three days to return to the palace, but the emperor ordered him to make a second trip next day. The following day, the prince and his two bodyguards went to the mountain again but could not find the monk.
The emperor again ordered him to make a third trip to the mountain. On hearing this, the prince said with evident reluctance in his voice, 'It looks like I have to travel at least 18 days up and down the mountain.' The emperor said angrily, 'What is a short journey of 18 days to a young man like you compared to your great grandfather's long march to power from the south to the west and north of the country when he was in his forties?'
The prince, accompanied by the two bodyguards, set off on his third trip to the mountain next day, and this time they found that the cave entrance was no longer blocked by the stone slab. The prince called loudly outside the cave, 'We are seeking an audience with Your Holiness on behalf of His Majesty, the Emperor!' Out came a thunderous voice, 'Come in, Your Royal Highness!'
Inside the cave, they saw an elderly monk sitting in lotus position on a straw mat. After the initial greetings and introduction, they were invited to take their seats opposite the monk. When he learned of the purpose of the prince's visit, the monk said, 'First, I must point out that His Majesty has missed the wood for the trees. The focus on prescreening the princess' suitors makes His Majesty lose sight of the overall picture. There are more pressing issues waiting to be addressed such as the widening wealth gap, social inequality, rising living costs, stagnant wages, acute housing problems, immigration issues, youth problems and so on. Failure to address the pressing issues will have an adverse impact on the country in the long run. To the majority of the population, their greatest dream is to pass the day happily and wake up next day without worry.
Secondly, the problems should have been nipped in the bud by negotiation long ago when they were still manageable. It seems that His Majesty has underestimated the resolution of his opponents. In their final life and death struggle, they have let the genie out of the bottle in the form of students. The protests could not simply be wished away now, especially when the students have taken over the protest movement. As the protests drag on, more factions join in and the situation becomes more complex. There are now more differences in opinions and less opportunity for resolution and compromise. There will be anarchy and disaster if every protester considers himself as the leader of the civil disobedience movement.
Thirdly, prolonged unrest will weaken the country, particularly in the face of external aggression by the marauding dwarf pirates and other invaders. The country has made tremendous economic progress in the last decade. Other countries are playing catch-up in the economic race, and we can't let any unrest impede the country's progress. Since the last decade, the country has taken great pains to build up a good image and reputation domestically and internationally, so it would be a great pity if it were to be tarnished by any reckless action overnight. In addition, the country is planning to send its first man to the moon by flying him there with a giant kite. We can't let the social disturbance distract the country from its higher goals. His Majesty should seek a peaceful settlement as soon as possible so that the country could be propelled to greater heights.
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Fourthly, Your Royal Highness has another sister who was abducted by the dwarf pirates and taken to a pirate island where she lived for a number of years. She was rescued after the dwarf abductors were defeated in a sea battle. However, she refused to recognise His Majesty as her father and chose to live independently on a remote island. She may decide to return home one day if the second youngest princess could have a happy marriage by choosing her husband from an unrestricted number of suitors without prescreening by His Majesty. Any more reckless actions may frighten the unfilial daughter further away from His Majesty. I visit the capital every week and find the situation getting increasingly complex day after day. I am afraid it is heading for disaster if both sides continue to stick to their positions.'
The prince asked, 'Is there any hope of breaking the impasse between both sides?'
The monk replied, 'There may be a way out of the deadlock. Have Your Royal Highness read a 16th century Chinese novel, 'Journey to the West', the authorship of which was attributed to Wu Cheng'en?'
The prince replied, 'I have heard of the novel, but I don’t have the time read it. Unlike my youngest brother, I am no bookworm. All the while, I had been busy defending the long coastlines against the marauding dwarf pirates. I wish to learn more about it.'
The monk said, 'Your Royal Highness would have to stay here from several months to a year to listen to the whole story of the great Chinese classical novel. I liken the current havoc in the country to the Monkey King's havoc in Heaven. I am going to relate the part of the story that has some bearing on the issue we are discussing:
After failing to stop Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, from wreaking more havoc in Heaven, the Jade Emperor appealed to the Buddha for help to subdue the trouble maker. The Buddha made a wager with the Monkey King, betting that he could not escape from his hand. Knowing that he could travel 108,000 li (54,000 kilometres) in one somersault, the Monkey King agreed to the bet.
He took a big leap forward and in a few seconds he saw five giant pillars of different heights jutting out from the clouds. He took them as boundary markers for the edge of the universe. As a proof of his venture to the end of the universe, he wrote a phrase in Chinese on one of the pillars declaring himself to be the Great Sage on a par with Heaven. As an additional proof of his feat, he urinated at the base of the same pillar. Then he leaped back and boasted to the Buddha about his feat.
The Buddha showed the Monkey King the phrase he had boastfully written on his middle finger. Then he asked the Monkey King to smell the urine on the finger. The Monkey King was shocked to discover that the five giant pillars that jutted out from the clouds were actually the five digits of the Buddha’s hand. Before the Monkey King could escape, the Buddha transformed his hand into a five-peaked mountain, trapping the Monkey King under it, with only his head and hands exposed. The Monkey King had to wait five centuries for the monk Tang Sanzang to rescue him for the pilgrimage to bring back Buddhist scriptures from India to China.'
The prince asked, 'What’s that got to do with the street protests?'
The monk replied, 'First, I would like to quote the following Chinese saying: To be a man, you must be able to bend and stretch (meaning flexible enough to respond to altered circumstances, with no pun intended). I would also like to quote two sayings by Lao Zi:
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.
In the Chinese novel, the Buddha had unshakeable faith in his power but he was flexible enough to negotiate and even bet with the Monkey King. It is not a sign of weakness to negotiate with your opponents but a display of might and self-confidence to reach a compromise or resolve a problem through dialogues.
In the story, the Monkey King's urination on the Buddha's finger is a symbolic challenge to the powerful religious authority. With a flip of the wrist, the Buddha could have cast the Monkey King down to the earth at once, yet he waited patiently for him to finish his monkey business and to wake up to the truth that he, the monkey, was not on a par with Heaven. The Buddha’s display of great patience and high tolerance for the monkey business was not a sign of weakness but a show of might and self-confidence. By letting the Monkey King accomplish the astounding feat of travelling vast distances in a single leap on his palm, the Buddha had convinced the Monkey King that no matter how powerful his monkey magic, he could escape neither 'through the gaps between his fingers' nor 'from his five-peaked mountain', so to speak.*
Secondly, for a shrewd politician, there is no line drawn in the sand between him and his opponents. If he finds that his opponent is able to help him govern the country better, he should try to win him over to his side. After all, the goal of a wise ruler is not to hold onto power but to govern the country better, and this could be done by recruiting the best talent into his administration, even from the opposition. The secret for a lasting hold onto power is to better govern the country, and this could be done by winning over the hearts and minds of the people, even the opposition.
The Buddha could have killed the Monkey King in their initial confrontation, but he was wise enough to keep him alive to be converted to Buddhism by the monk Tang Sanzang five centuries later. Please bear in mind that the Monkey King was initially a rebel who raised havoc in Heaven with no respect for any divine authority, yet the Buddha was wise and flexible to pardon him for his sins and win him over to his side. The Monkey King defeated many gods during his havoc in Heaven, but he became a faithful disciple of Tang Sanzang, the powerless monk who was as gentle as a lamb, and guarded him all the way to India like a livestock guardian dog protecting a sheep from predators.
This story has a parallel case in the West. In my younger days, I had worked on a ship and travelled to many foreign lands. I came across a religion called Christianity and had some knowledge of its history. I was particularly interested in one religious figure called Paul the Apostle. His original name was Saul of Tarsus.
According to the Christian holy book called Bible, while travelling on the road to Damascus one day, Saul experienced a vision of the resurrected Jesus. He fell down and heard a voice saying unto him, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’ Saul replied, ‘Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.’ According to this account, Saul was blinded for three days and had to be led into Damascus by the hand, where his sight was restored by Ananias of Damascus.
The dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus convinced him that God indeed had chosen Jesus to be the promised Messiah. It was a life-altering event for him, changing him from being one of the early movement's most ardent persecutors to being one of its most fervent supporters. Although in the early days of Christianity, Saul zealously persecuted the Christians and made violent attempts to destroy the movement, Jesus displayed wisdom and flexibility in pardoning Saul for his sins and winning him over to the Christian movement.
I have heard that since her return to the palace, the princess always throws tantrums by banging her head against His Majesty's chest every day. I would like to quote from the grandfather of Your Royal Highness:
It doesn't matter whether the dog is black or white, as long as it catches thieves. **
If His Majesty could not prevent his own daughter from banging her head against his chest every day, it would be in his best interest to widen the pool of suitors to increase the chance of getting the best man to be her husband and tame her temper regardless of whether he comes from a rich or a poor family, or whether he must seek His Majesty's advice all the time on how to be a good husband.
From the standpoint of the protesters, it is preferable and desirable to choose a husband for the princess according to his merit. Such a man would know his own mind on how to become a good husband, and would not be beholden to anybody but has an open mind to listen to all other people, particularly if he were to hold an important post one day.
From the standpoint of the princess, it would be the dream of every girl to be able to choose her life partner freely and get a happy marriage that may eventually tame her temper.
On the other hand, a shrewd politician could try to bring a die-hard opponent into his own circle to keep him under control. For example, the Buddha succeeded to keep the Monkey King out of mischief by giving him the task of escorting the monk Tang Sanzang on the pilgrimage to India. The Monkey King had no time for mischief in Heaven as he was busy fighting off countless monsters and devils who were hungrily eyeing his master's flesh which, according to legend, one bite of it would make any monster immortal.
The Buddha had never lost his control over the Monkey King who had to seek help on several occasions either from him or Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy (Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit), to rescue Tang Sanzang during the pilgrimage to India. It did not matter to the Buddha whether the Monkey King would eventually convert to Buddhism as long as he had no time for mischief in Heaven.'"
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At this point, the normally silent listener, Uncle, jokingly interrupted Agong's story: "If his daughter could never be tamed, it would be a good idea for the emperor to teach his political opponents a lesson by marrying her to one of their sons. At least the emperor would not die of heart attack from his daughter's nasty bumps on his chest." The 12-year-old boy and other older children laughed.
"Yes Philosopher!" Agong smiled and continued with his story. "After the monk revealed the hidden symbolism in the Chinese classical novel, the prince said, 'Thanks for the enlightenment. I shall convey it to His Majesty.'
To emphasize his points, the monk brought the prince and his men to the ruins of an old Buddhist temple some distance away from the cave. Pointing to a 5-metre-high statue of the Buddha sitting in lotus position, he said, 'The temple was destroyed by an earthquake some years ago. Although the Buddha statue had fortunately escaped damage from the earthquake, it has unfortunately become a playground for a little monkey that climbs up and urinates on its head every day. Now the little rascal is doing its monkey business again after seeing us here, as though trying to show us it can outdo the Monkey King's feat of urinating on the Buddha's finger. In spite of its sacrilegious acts, I still come here to pray to the Buddha regularly.’
The prince asked, 'Can't Your Holiness do something to end the sacrilege?' The monk replied, 'I can't stand here guarding the statue day and night. Furthermore, I am forbidden by my religion from hurting any living creature. Even if I could kill the monkey, there will be no lack of monkeys repeating the sacrilege. Worst of all, the whole monkey clan would come after me and chase me away from the mountain.'
Pointing to the bamboo flutes that were lying on the ground, the monk said, 'Three years ago, I made a bamboo flute and found that all the monkeys would stop their antics and gather around me whenever I played on the flute. Even the little monkey would stop its monkey business on the Buddha statue's head to listen to my tunes. One monkey even tried to snatch my flute away to play on it. Hence, besides meditation, I spend most of my time cutting bamboos to make them into flutes for the monkeys to play.'
On hearing this, the prince and his men laughed. Picking up a bamboo flute, the monk said, 'Bamboo has a higher compressive strength than wood, brick or concrete and a tensile strength that rivals steel. Throughout the centuries, bamboo has inspired the imagination of Chinese artists and poets, with the latter expressing admiration in their poems for its uprightness, tenacity, purity, integrity, elegance and plainness, though it is not physically strong. Bai Juyi (772 AD–846 AD), a Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty, opined that a real gentleman needs not to be physically strong, but he must be mentally strong, upright, and perseverant. Just as a hollow-hearted bamboo, he should open his heart to accept anything of benefit and never have arrogance or prejudice.'
The monk handed the bamboo flute to the prince, saying: 'Let this be food for thought for His Majesty. Due to Its flexible properties, bamboo can survive in a hurricane or typhoon. It's not too late to win back the hearts and minds of the people. The battle for the hearts and minds has just begun.'
After thanking and bidding farewell to the monk, the prince and his bodyguards began their journey down the mountain but returned after walking a few steps. He asked the monk. 'It's amazing that Your Holiness seems to know not only the happenings in the country but also much about the world while living as a hermit in a remote mountain cave. How does Your Holiness do it?'
The monk replied, 'My feet are planted in my country, but my eyes are surveying the world.' ***
The prince said, 'I am sure His Majesty will listen to Your Holiness.'
The monk replied, 'Listen not to me but the people.'
The prince smiled, and left with his men for the palace."
At this point, Agong surveyed his audience and asked: "After listening to my story, let's have a little mental exercise. What do you think would be the emperor's next course of action?"
A teenage boy said, "The emperor finally lost his patience, cracking down on all the protesters with full force."
The 12-year-old boy shouted, "The emperor reached a compromise with the protesters to end the massive street protests."
A teenage girl replied, "The emperor acceded to the demand of the protesters, allowing the princess to throw her silk ball at more than three suitors without prescreening."
A younger girl said, "The emperor remained adamant but the protesters got tired of the massive drawn out protests and backed down finally."
Agong said, "Well said. All of us are praying that the emperor could choose the best course of action for the benefit of his country and his people."
After all the children had left for home, Uncle asked, "In your opinion, why did the author of such a great literary work as 'Journey to the West' choose to remain anonymous?"
Agong replied, "In my opinion, 'Journey to the West' is not just an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang who travelled to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures and returned after many trials and much suffering. Neither is it a book of fairy tales for entertaining children or passing idle time. It contains some hidden symbolic meanings which were quite controversial and far ahead of its time, even to many politicians today.
For instance, the Mandate of Heaven is an ancient Chinese belief and philosophical idea that Heaven or the Jade Emperor granted the earthly emperors the right to rule based on their ability to govern well and fairly. Hence the havoc raised by the Monkey King in Heaven is a symbolic challenge to the country’s highest governing body. The author could be aware of the risks of having his head and the heads of his family members and relatives chopped off by the authorities at that time. That was why, in my opinion, he chose not to claim any credit to his great literary work but published it anonymously instead."
Uncle asked, "What do you think would be the outcome of the street protests in the story?"
Agong replied, "Both sides seem to be playing a high-stakes waiting game with the wishful thinking that the other side would be the first to blink. Hopefully, the monk's advice to the emperor would not fall on deaf ears, and common sense would prevail for the good of the country and the people. I don’t hold out much optimism for any positive outcome of the street protests. As pointed out by George Santayana, a US (Spanish-born) philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’"
* "You can't escape through the gaps between my fingers."
"You can't escape from my 'five-fingered' (meaning five-peaked) mountain."
Both the above are Chinese idioms meaning "You can't break free from my control", probably originated from the episode of the Buddha's taming of the Monkey King in the Chinese novel 'Journey to the West'.
** Adapted from Deng Xiaoping's quote: "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice."
*** Adapted from George Santayana's quote: "A man's feet should be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world."
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Agong looked up and recognised the solitary figure approaching them in the distance. After Uncle arrived, Agong said: “Nowadays you seem to get increasingly interested in my stories. Previously you seldom came here.”
“Just to find out how the ‘old spider’ spins his yarn,” replied Uncle jokingly.
Agong laughed: “Welcome to my ‘prettiest little parlour’. Let's spin the yarn now. Many years had passed since the prince visited the hermit monk. One day, a stranger wearing a straw bowl-shaped hat low on his face arrived at the capital. With the hat that hid almost half his face, he looked like a ronin or a ‘xiake’ (Chinese knight-errant). He held an umbrella over his right shoulder and carried a bundle of belongings across his left shoulder. He saw dozens of elderly people trudging along a street with protest banners in their left hands and umbrellas as walking sticks in their right hands.
'What are those senior citizens doing?' the stranger asked an onlooker on the street. Back came the reply: 'They are protesting against the emperor’s decision to vet the suitors for a princess.'
'I have heard rumours that the princess has fallen into a deep slumber for many years. Do you have any idea where she is sleeping?' asked the stranger. In response, the onlooker pointed at a tower in the distance: ‘She is rumoured to be lying asleep in her chamber on the top floor of that tower among the palace buildings.'
After going to a quiet part of the city, the stranger took out a tiny piece of wood from his pocket and said: 'Big! Big! Big!' It gradually grew in size till it became as big as a tabletop. He sat upon it and said: 'Up! Up! Up!' The rectangular piece of wood rose in the air like the legendary flying carpet and flew towards the tower where the princess was rumoured to be in deep slumber for many years. It flew through a window at the highest level of the tower and landed on the floor with a thud.
The sound awakened a girl who sat snoring on a chair beside a table. The stranger spoke to the frightened girl: 'Sorry to disturb you. You must be the princess!'
The girl replied: 'No, I am not. The princess is lying asleep on the bed behind the curtain.'
The stranger walked towards the bed and drew the curtain aside, but he drew back in horror instantly. 'Tell me, tell me what has happened!' he screeched.
The girl replied: 'This is what I heard from my great uncle. Shortly after the prince returned from his visit to the hermit monk at the mountain, the police removed all the barricades in the streets without much resistance. Meanwhile the princess went on a long hunger strike to demand for her right to throw her silk ball at more than three suitors without prescreening by the emperor. In order to save her life, the emperor ordered a sorcerer to cast a spell on her so that she would fall into a profound slumber for a hundred years. After reigning nearly half a century, the emperor died of illness and the prince acceded to the throne. He, in turn, passed away a few decades later and was succeeded by his son.
The people held rallies and protests every year especially on certain important occasions. After many years, most of the protesters, their children and grandchildren gradually passed away due to old age or illness. Those who are protesting on the street today are the few surviving participants of past protests.'
'Are you sure the woman on the bed is really the princess?' asked the stranger.
'Of course, she is!' replied the girl.
'How come she is skin and bones, with long white hair, and pale shriveled face?' asked the stranger.
'What do you expect of a person who has been sleeping for 100 years?' asked the girl.
'But the legendary princess in a fairy tale looked as young and beautiful as ever after sleeping for 100 years?' said the stranger.
'That happens only in fairy tales!' retorted the girl.
'I still believe you are the princess, and the woman on the bed is your grandmother. You are so young and beautiful!' insisted the stranger.
'I am the maid-in-waiting to the princess. There is a portrait of her on the wall,' said the girl.
After taking a look at the portrait, the stranger turned to the maid-in-waiting: 'Yes, the princess has been withering like a flower over the years.'
After taking a pause, he continued: 'Now the problem is that, according to the fairy tale, the princess has to be kissed by the right guy to save her from the evil spell.'
The maid-in-waiting replied: 'No need for any kiss. By now, she has slept for a hundred years, and will wake up any moment now.'
Just as he heaved a sigh of relief, a loud prolonged yawn came from the direction of the bed. The maid-in-waiting rushed towards the bed. Drawing the curtains, she shouted: 'The princess has awakened!'
The stranger also rushed towards the bed. Staring at both of them, the princess kept on asking: 'Who are you? Who am I?'
No matter how hard the maid-in-waiting tried, she could not get the princess to recall the past. When the stranger bade farewell to her, she begged him to bring her along. The maid-in-waiting also wanted to join them, explaining that she would be charged with neglect of duty for failing to guard the princess if she did not leave together with them. Taking a glance at the maid, the stranger said jokingly: 'Yes, I have caught you sleeping on the job just now. Anyway, I am glad to bring you along, as I still suspect you are the real princess.' The maid laughed: 'You are a real fan of fairy tales. You still believe she should look as young as I am after sleeping for 100 years!'
The stranger asked both of them to sit together with him upon the piece of rectangular wood. After the stranger shouted 'Up! Up! Up!' it rose in the air and flew out of the window into the blue sky.
After flying for about two hours, they arrived at their destination. As soon as the stranger shouted 'Down! Down! Down!', the piece of wood began its descent to the ground. After touching down, he told his companions: 'This is my home village. Let's go...'
Before he could finish his sentence, he was interrupted by a voice: 'Welcome home, Mr Thumb Dry! I have been waiting here for some time.' Looking in the direction of the voice, the stranger whose Chinese name was Gan Zhi, which I loosely translate as ‘Thumb Dry’, saw a young man waving at him some distance away near a stream.
'Hi! How do you know I am coming home today?' Thumb Dry asked in surprise.
'Of course, being an immortal, I know in advance about your homecoming,' he replied.
Taking a glance at the two women, he continued: 'Congratulations! You have found a wife and a maid-in-waiting. Finally you can settle down after roaming for 100 years in search of adventures.'
With a look of surprise on his face, Thumb Dry said: 'I have lost count of my age since I was 25, but I don't think I am over 100 years old yet.'
The young man smiled: 'Go to the stream and stare into the water.'
Thumb Dry went to the stream, took off his hat and stared into the water, but he drew back and cried in horror: 'I know my hair has grown white over the years. It's not unusual to find white hair in some young people too. However, never before did I notice that my face is so wrinkled and wizened.'
The young man said: 'You are just a few months older than the princess, your wife-to-be. Most people won't live beyond 100. Both of you are left with only few years to enjoy the bliss of married life.'
Thumb Dry said: 'It's sad to hear that my wife-to-be and I have only a few more years to live. I wish I could roam for another hundred years in search of adventures. When so much left undone, I feel that life is really short. I can still recall some verses from Alfred Lord Tennyson's long poem Ulysses:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me...
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees....
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die....
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Alas! The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Just a short while ago, I was full of energy. I could jump and leap or even run for miles. However, after resigning myself to the fact of aging, my energy seems to be draining away from by body.'
The young man laughed: 'Just take the indignities of aging as a bonus for longevity.'
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The young man laughed: 'As I have told you just now, I am an immortal. Can you recall what I told you in our first meeting 100 years ago?'
Thumb Dry said: 'Although I am getting increasingly forgetful nowadays, I can still recall the past as though it were yesterday. You had told me that our second meeting would be our last meeting when you would ask for the return of your three treasures: your magic tabletop, your magic umbrella and your book on the art of self-defence using your magic umbrella.'
The young man laughed: 'I am glad you can still remember it.'
Thumb Dry took out a book from his bundle of belongings, and handed it and the umbrella to him. The young man bowed to the princess, saying: 'Farewell, Your Royal Highness!’ After bidding farewell to the rest, he stood on the rectangular piece of wood and said, 'Up! Up! Up!' It soared up to the sky and disappeared into the clouds.
Turning to his two companions, Thumb Dry asked: 'I was interrupted by that man in mid-sentence. Can you recall what I was saying?'
'This is my home village. Let's go...' said the princess. Thumb Dry exclaimed in astonishment: 'It's amazing you can remember better than me.' The princess replied: 'I have gradually regained my memory on my way here.'
'Now I remember what I was going to say: Let's go to my friend's house over yonder,' said Thumb Dry.
Thumb Dry led them to his friend's house. He found out that his friend, like the rest of his contemporaries at the village, had passed away decades ago. None in the village knew or recognised him. In the end, he bought a piece of land near the village and built a small hut there. While living a happy married life with the princess, he had not forgotten to seek happiness for the maid-in-waiting by marrying her to a kind, young man in the village.
Like the character in Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem Ulysses, old Thumb Dry was ‘made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’. The princess passed away a few years after they settled in the village. Even though he knew it would not be long for him to join her in somewhere he knew not, he was still driven by his insatiable thirst for knowledge to seek another hundred years of adventure."
At the end of the storytelling session, one girl expressed disappointment that the princess was no longer young and beautiful after sleeping for 100 years. An older girl opined that the story would be much better if Thumb Dry was a young, handsome man. The 12-year-old boy commented that it would be more exciting if the princess was awakened by a kiss. A teenage girl said the current emperor should show sympathy for his aunt, the princess, by holding the most extravagant fairy-tale wedding ceremony and reception for the couple. She said the bride should look gorgeous and the bridegroom dashing. This would please the people and end the hundred years of protest, she said.
A teenage boy suggested that the story would be "great" if Thumb Drive was a young handsome knight in shining armour riding the flying horse Pegasus to the rescue of the princess who looked as young and beautiful as ever after waking up from her deep slumber. Another teenage boy said the story would be more interesting if Thumb Dry was a young handsome prince from another land coming to wake the eternally young and beautiful princess from her deep slumber and bring her to his magnificent castle on a magic chariot drawn by a flying horse.
After the children had dispersed, Uncle suggested leaving the story as it was without the ending. He opined that the event, if happened in the real world, could turn out to be a never-ending story of a perpetual struggle. He said it was a pathetic ending for the princess to spend her few remaining years with a "retired vagabond" after sleeping almost her whole life away amidst the hullabaloo over her marriage rights. Agong played down his disappointment by saying: "Get over it! C'est la vie!" (A French expression meaning "That's life!" or "Such is life!")
In response to the question how Thumb Dry spent the rest of his life after his wife's death, Agong said: "He tells fairy tales to the children at his village every day."
Uncle burst out laughing: "Now I can guess who he is!"
P.S. After much deliberation, I decide on the final title "Deep Slumber" for the story.
Sorry for the change in the title. This change will certainly be the last for this tale.
****************************** The End ******************************